Review: Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States: Restoring Cultural Knowledge, Protecting Environments, and Regaining Health

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Alli Miller

Edited by Devon A. Mihesuah and Elizabeth Hoover, Foreword by Winona LaDuke, University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 2019

In Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States: Restoring Cultural Knowledge, Protecting Environments, and Regaining Health, Devon A. Mihesuah and Elizabeth Hoover present a comprehensive collection of essays offering perspectives from Native American chefs, activists, farmers, gardeners, seed-keepers, scholars, and scientists working to reclaim, protect, and steward natural resources to usher in the food sovereignty movement. The editors acknowledge that this collection is incomplete because they are unable to include every initiative, voice, or cultures of Indigenous peoples living in the United States (U.S.). Nonetheless, each essay makes it clear that Indigenous people in the U.S. are deeply impacted by the devastating, ongoing effects of colonization, forced displacement, genocide, treaty revocations, and neoliberal capitalism. Food sovereignty for Native Americans in the U.S. is linked to self-determination and well-being across physical, emotional, cultural, economic, and political realms. Lacking access to their traditional homelands and facing restrictions over their autonomy and authority, these authors demonstrate how Indigenous people are prevented from maintaining traditional relationships with their ancestral lands or practicing and sustaining their cultural identities.

LaDuke’s foreword and Hoover and Mihesuah’s introduction lay the groundwork for a clear definition of how Native American food systems were intentionally disrupted, as food and food-related knowledge were deliberately ruined by European settlers colonizing North America, originally known by some Indigenous peoples as Turtle Island. European styles of agriculture and farming supplanted traditional Indigenous food systems, and these staple crops and livestock continue to dominate the landscape today. An insidious side-effect of colonization, echoed throughout this collection of essays, is that the European food brought in during settler-colonialism continues to be prioritized over native plants and Indigenous foods through policy. These food crops and dietary habits are economically and politically entrenched, hindering the ability for Indigenous people to grow their preferred food and engage in traditional ecological knowledge practices. These essays also depict the nuances between how Native American struggles for food sovereignty apply to the broader, global, collective struggle of peasant farmers. For this collection, the classical definitions of “food” and “sovereignty” are framed in a more cultural and relational way. Food shifts away from being a consumable commodity and is defined as, “the bond between people, health, and land. Sovereignty, rather than being understood as control over land, water, or wildlife, is instead framed by this community as a relationship with these entities that allows for the mutual benefit of all parties” (12).

Personal connections are critical towards the practice of Indigenous food sovereignty and this book distinguishes itself from others in the field by thoughtfully introducing each contributing author, allowing readers to gain insight about each author’s personal background and relationship to the Indigenous food sovereignty movement. The diversity of authorship impacts how the reader engages with the complex components of Indigenous food sovereignty— this is an issue that can be seen and experienced in the daily lives of people working to find healthy food options in their communities; it is connected to the scientists and academics working to ensure seeds, plants, animals, and waterways continue to thrive in a world devasted by climate change; and connects how strategies to re-introduce traditional ecological knowledge are imperative to preserving Indigenous cultures. If this were a collection of essays written by only academics who were not active in these movements, the unifying thread of cultural significance and preservation might not have resonated as strongly within the series.

After detailing the contributors’ backgrounds, Hoover expands on the definition of food sovereignty in Chapter Two, emphasizing that it is not just a state to be achieved but also a method that needs to be put into action. Each of the subsequent essays are well-organized, presenting concrete, contextualized examples of how the Indigenous food sovereignty movement is operationalized across food systems: from seeds to gardens, farms to restaurants, and everywhere in between. As highlighted in Lindholm’s, and again in Livingston’s, essay, Indigenous food sovereignty is an indispensable tool towards alleviating tribal health concerns and promoting better health; it is imperative for restoring spiritual and cultural recovery necessary for ecological restoration. Indigenous food sovereignty also provides Native American tribes pathways toward economic and political autonomy as noted in Gwin’s essay on Cherokee seed banks and Wall and Masayesva’s piece on Hopi agriculture. In every example outlined in this collection, food sovereignty is recognized as a way to revitalize Indigenous relationships to the earth, thereby keeping their cultures alive. Relationships with food and land provide opportunities for Indigenous people to practice ceremonial activities, explain cosmology, and preserve their language.

Food activists, scholars, and students across a variety of academic disciplines such as food studies, environmental studies, geography, Indigenous studies, anthropology, public health, public policy, and beyond would find great value in the issues and perspectives raised in this collection. The importance of teaching is heavily emphasized throughout the series. This volume of work is targeted towards educators as a teaching tool and valuable resource. The appendix offers guiding questions to help students and practitioners apply a critical dimension to their reading of the text. Perhaps in future editions, the editors could add a map of Turtle Island/North America, highlighting the specific regions discussed in the essays—for example, where the various tribal nations cited in the text currently live, and the spaces their ancestral homelands occupied—thereby allowing readers to contextualize the essays and visualize the changes that have occurred. 

These essays profile optimistic, tangible solutions towards reclaiming tribal autonomy through food sovereignty. The collection goes beyond merely recognizing and critiquing a corrupt system by demonstrating how resilience and resistance to imperialistic, neoliberal systems are possible. Notably, this collection offers viewpoints from sectors that are not frequently included in academic volumes, such as the work done by chef and restaurateur Nephi Craig. With this additional type of inclusion, these essays make meaningful connections between the wide breadth of Indigenous initiatives and how they are collectively working towards a shared goal of food sovereignty.

Through community activism, advocacy, and other forms of public engagement, this book highlights how Indigenous people can make significant strides towards restoring their relationships with the land and with their food, improving health, and advancing their political and economic success. The contributions to this book provide effective methods through which the Indigenous food sovereignty movement bridges gaps within the arena of food justice and identifies how various initiatives can work in tandem, rather than as isolated programs. On a broader level, Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States effectively portrays how social movements need to and can build networks and coalitions to advocate for radical change and justice. 


Alli Miller is a graduate student pursuing her Master’s in Public Policy with a certificate in Sustainable Food Systems at Portland State University. She received her BA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Political Science and Psychology. She is currently working on research that evaluates governmental institutions’ ability to provide equitable funding towards federally recognized Tribes. She hopes to center her career around promoting food sovereignty, eliminating inequality, and creating sustainable solutions for climate change rooted in community resilience.